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MAGA Won't Change; We Must
In previous newsletters we laid out a comprehensive action plan that aims to save democracy first, then to make the world a place where everyone can thrive and self-actualize. The reason it seems so fanciful to consider such a world is that we well know that there are reasons things are as they are now – and not in that future state we desire. Thus, it is pointless to discuss such a future without also detailing an implementation path to get us from here to there that accounts for the major constraints.
In this piece we aim to correct our earlier oversight by providing you with practical guidance to help collectively bring about a better future.
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For context, (and as review for avid Revelatur Newsletter readers), here's an admittedly oversimplified snapshot (excerpted from a recent newsletter) of the interconnected complex problems driving our socio-political race to the bottom, and the environmental doom loop we term “climate change:”
“The interesting historical combination of Donald Trump and Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems to have finally broken through the dense shell that enables us to pretend we still have time to write the great American novel, travel, put the boss in his place, lose weight, volunteer, save the planet, help rescue democracy, or just play with the kids more.
The Problem. It is clear to everyone that Trump is accelerating societal degradation and retarding efforts to address climate change, that he is not being sufficiently contained by our systems of justice and accountability, and that he is an existential danger to American democracy. This is a totally legitimate concern -- the danger spreads every additional day he draws a breath.
AI frightens people because its concepts are inaccessible to all but a select few and thus the worst is feared. The problem is not AI itself. AI, like all technologies, has the potential to generate a range of good and bad outcomes. The danger is that it is being rapidly fielded and exponentially scaled by people and organizations whose stakeholders are neoliberal to the core and whose primary, secondary, and tertiary concerns are return on investment. The realistic concern is not that “bad” AI will take over the world, but that runaway AI applications will eliminate jobs and alter economies much more rapidly than governments and people can adapt.
Oddly enough, these two challenges are systemically related. In fact, all our complex societal problems are inextricably linked, and we only point out the two here because they have captured the public imagination. They all result from the combination of the speed at which change now occurs, the reduced time and attention available to people to adapt to change, and obsolete learning approaches.
The Impact. At any rate, we no longer have a margin of time to make meaning out of our lives and save the planet. The entire earth system (geosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere), and most of our sociopolitical systems, are rapidly collapsing. Ominously, the rate of collapse is accelerating, and our collective response rate is inadequate by a magnitude. But these facts are not widely appreciated, meaning we have work to do just to get people to understand the realities we face before we can expect major adjustments in individual attitudes and collective approaches.
As Jem Bendell points out in his seminal work, “Breaking Together,” much current and future systems damage is irreversible even if we began a perfect response from this point forward. Things will get much worse before they get any better, and they may never get better due to our colossal collective cowardice, stupidity, and greed.”
So, if the problem is existential, why don’t we act? What’s the biggest constraint that most prevents us from enacting our plan? It’s between our ears.
Everybody thinks they are open-minded, flexible, and pragmatic – that it’s the other guy who has a rigid worldview that entraps him and renders him into a human robot.
Reality is that all of us have a defining worldview – a “strange attractor*” that governs our behavior. Some people have more expansive and healthier worldviews – usually resulting from a combination of broadening life experiences, self-awareness, and recognition that they are looking at the world through a lens that can always be sharpened.
*Unlike the randomness generated by a system with many variables, chaos (complex systems like the global geo-political system, are chaotic) has its own pattern, a peculiar kind of order. This pattern is known whimsically as a strange attractor, because the chaotic system seems to be strangely attracted to an ideal behavior,” Merriam-Webster.
Unfortunately, the majority have unhealthy, poorly informed frames (see this article on the existential threat posed by American stupidity) with which they view and interpret the world. This majority drives community, societal, and national cultures. Unhealthy cultures and lack of self-awareness constrain individual choice and collective policy options, and thus lead to suboptimal human outcomes.
Why does this matter? Because there is no difference between a culture that systematically prevents positive change and slavery -- from the viewpoint of the enslaved. American culture is preventing positive change; thus, the American people are enslaved. We use such strong characterization of America not to shock or enrage, but to shake up the current characterization to unlock possibility for change.
We are enslaved primarily to unfounded beliefs. We believe we are first and foremost among nations because of our myths, economic and military successes, and our cultural dominance. Truth be told, we’re the least broadly educated and mature populace in the western world. Check out this article that just scratches the surface of the problem. I personally observed the vast gulf between average knowledge levels of Americans and Europeans while serving overseas for six years during the Cold War.
We conclude that It’s the reality gap, and not so much the knowledge and maturity gaps, that drives our socio-political pathology, although of course the gaps are related via the Dunning-Kruger effect (The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with limited competence in a particular domain overestimate their abilities, Wikipedia).
Thus we suffer from a totally undeserved superiority complex. This in turn makes us frustrated that we can’t always get our way internationally as a nation, but it also causes low-information citizens to get frustrated when they don’t get their way socially, politically, or at work. It is one of the causes of resentment that then opens the door for grievance-based propaganda.
We do not characterize self-imposed enslavement to culture and worldview as the equivalent to other externally imposed and brutal forms of slavery. But we argue that they are systemically related, and that the reemergence of global chattel slavery and the increase in human trafficking is directly related to acquiescence to growing cultural slavery and romance with authoritarianism in western democracies.
So what? Well, we are much further from our myths and beliefs, much less our long-term objectives, than we have been telling ourselves. Until we come to grips with the actual state of our society and our beliefs, we cannot begin to move forward collectively to our desired future state.
Why does this matter in the context of our ongoing efforts at change? Well, if this hypothesis is correct,then we require nothing less than a movement of liberation to preserve democracy, then achieve our longer-term objectives. And if this is also true, then our current efforts are off course: The standard characterization of current liberal, progressive and Democratic Party efforts to counter the right is democracy preservation. Since liberals are not often animated by fear, such a characterization neither inspires nor mobilizes them.
But what most enslaves Americans culturally is the political theology known as neoliberalism -- the very worst possible combination of Marxism, Feudalism, Capitalism, and organized religion.
Neoliberalism is composed of a complementary set of mostly intrinsic precepts that form an unacknowledged doctrine and impose an orthodoxy on American society. A political doctrine can be usefully divided into categories based on their specific utility. The categories include control mechanisms, engagement, influence and communications methods, myths, rewards, and sanctions.
Let’s look at neoliberalism’s primary tenets:
Control Mechanisms and Sanctions.
Neoliberalism is a very mature doctrine whose adherents have learned well from the mistakes of others. One of the areas it has perfected is fear. In the modern world and especially within democracies, the age-old fear of “the other” is too inelegant of a tool to wield directly, so it is artfully obscured by the fear of sliding backwards economically and socially.
This is the fear that animates MAGA, and it is easy to focus the fearful on “the other” as the cause of their downward economic direction. Thus the argument we keep having about whether or not economic concern or racism/sexism is the key MAGA driver is missing the point – it is both, because systemically they are head and tails of the same monster.
Financial Debt is another key control mechanism – thus the necessity for a consumer economy. This is why democracies with less individual debt and higher savings rates are more vibrant politically, and much quicker to protest government policy, than the U.S.
Social Ostracism or Rejection (“when an individual is deliberately excluded from a social relationship or social interaction. The topic includes interpersonal rejection, romantic rejection and familial estrangement. A person can be rejected or shunned by individuals or an entire group of people,” Wikipedia) is a very subtle cultural threat. The very real fear is that by adopting a point of view that runs counter to the dominant culture an individual will become less relevant and influential, and that is a powerful deterrent to communications and actions that might incur such loss. This is one of – although certainly not the only – bounding mechanisms that keep progressives, liberals and Democrats from responding in kind to the right’s provocations – even when the right’s actions result in cultural enslavement and, in cases such as Covid vaccinations, in actual deaths.
Legal Sanction. People are afraid of running afoul of well-off, litigious people who could bankrupt them through legal fees stemming from lawsuits, even should they eventually prevail. They are equally if not more so afraid of losing their jobs due to ridiculous policies, such as is happening in Florida to democratic prosecutors and librarians.
Police. The 90% of us not in the elite rightfully fear violent police action, wrongful arrest and incarceration, and lack of justice pursued against transgressors within the elite. This fear inhibits most people from any sort of civil disobedience, which in turn limits its effect.
The U.S. is the Best in Everything That Matters. Innovation, applied technology, military power, and Universities, yes. In everything else (there are hundreds of other categories) we are second rate at best.
American Exceptionalism – “American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States is either distinctive, unique, or exemplary compared to other nations. Proponents argue that the values, political system, and historical development of the U.S. are unique in human history, often with the implication that it is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage,” Wikipedia. We may well be the most self-deluded nation in history, suffering in turn from the worst case of cognitive dissonance ever recorded.
Upward Mobility/Everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. First, it’s not possible mathematically. Statistically, an ever-decreasing number of people are not able to advance in class and status despite hard work, clean living, and solid education. The U.S. has become the most class-oriented western democracy, with the least possibility for upward mobility. Second, it is impossible systemically. The right is authoritarian and hierarchical, and its strategies and policies limit the size of the elite into which people could theoretically pull themselves up into.
Economic Outcomes Matter Most. Comparative national economic measures are a function of a basket of factors including national policies, education levels, natural resources, historical circumstances and path dependence, incentives, work force participation levels, etc. In other words, it’s the inputs that matter, not some national je ne sais quoi bequeathed on a nation by God.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Matters Most. Human well-being is the most important measure of the effectiveness of a nation and its economy. There is little correlation between national GDP and human well-being. A much more important economic measure is income and wealth distribution – a comparative rarely addressed by American politicians of either party or the U.S. press.
Anyone Can Grow Up to Be President. While Trump’s victory in 2016 would prove to be an ironic validation to this myth, it is much more accurate to say that any rich white man has a non-zero chance of becoming President, while statistically speaking all others do not.
Engagement, Influence, and Communications Methods The right’s ecosystem links Strategy, Doctrine, Propaganda, Organized Religion, Politics, Media, Schools, and the Workplace via information warfare plan and techniques. Based on several unique characteristics and democratic structural vulnerabilities in the U.S., the plan is succeeding brilliantly.
Rewards for Compliance:
Social Capital: MAGA members are glad to have found fellow souls to commiserate with since they’ve spent most of their lives certain that they were friendless and unlovable losers. It’s abjectly pathetic and thoroughly disheartening to realize that close to 40% of the U.S. population is MAGA and/or fellow travelers, but here we are.
Loss and Risk Prevention. The right is backstopping and therefore emboldening MAGA members by extending its powerful net of impunity over increasing numbers of them. This is funded by the wealth of billionaires and enabled by the systematic erosion of principles of accountability and culpability.
Monetary Rewards. If you fight for Trump and MAGA you get rich, or richer. Doesn’t matter if you lose – look at Kari Lake. Whose funding her efforts, and how much is it costing them? It appears there is no bottom to the resources the right will apply to overthrow the government.
Conclusion: What the right ecosystem is doing is less a diabolical conspiracy than it is mass psychosis and taking advantage of human frailty, exploiting local power imbalances, and accelerating negative trends. Imagine “The Matrix '' except that it was both transparent and accepted by the majority as the best that could be hoped for. But this conclusion means that it is both more pervasive and more difficult to combat than if it were a Pentaverate-type conspiracy.
Here’s what I have distilled about change over a lifetime as a leader-practitioner, management consultant, and researcher that is true, relevant, and useful: People do not change “to change. They do not change because others warn or threaten them. Individuals do not change to avoid bad outcomes. People adapt as necessary as a by-product of trying to complete or achieve some specific, positive, and tangible goal that gives meaning to their lives. The same is true of collective actions such as those of an organization or a society. Individuals and organizations require some sort of “well-structured noise” to jolt them out of inferior equilibria and into superior ones. Positive change begins with acceptance of reality.
So, what then is the well-structured noise – the catalyst – that will blast us out of our equilibria and enable requisite individual and societal change? That “what” is a movement of liberation we term the “Just Nation” movement, and the “how “is through the principles and practices of participative democracy. We outlined these at length in previous pieces, and link you to them here and here. The “why” to hitch up to such an effort is known only to you, but we suggest it’s some desire to leave the world a better place than you found it.
Revelatur Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.